ELMONT, N.Y. -- The Belmont Stakes was a thriller, all right -- just not as thrilling as it could have been.
Here came a frontrunner, gamely holding on, and his rival, gobbling up ground with every stride. Here was the wire, the inside horse getting up just in time, white shadowroll flashing by a neck on the line.
For Union Rags, this was the start that would tell the tale. If he finished respectably, the Fountain of Youth winner would be a good horse, worthy of his 2-year-old hype and the faith many placed in him heading to the Kentucky Derby. If he ran up the track, he'd be labeled a fraud -- a runner who was winless since February and failed to step it up after finishing a troubled seventh on the first Saturday in May.
"Whether he could have done something against I'll Have Another, I don't know -- but it sure would have been fun to see."
”-- Michael Matz, trainer of Union Rags
For Paynter, it was the test of his mettle, a step to the big leagues off a May 19 allowance score. It was also the final chance of the year at a Triple Crown Classic for owner Ahmed Zayat, trainer Bob Baffert, and jockey Mike Smith -- the trio who combined to finish second with Bodemeister in both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.
But the horse they should have been running down to achieve the victory -- I'll Have Another, who could have become the first Triple Crown winner since 1978 -- was back in a stall in the stable area at Belmont Park, winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes retired on Friday afternoon by owner J. Paul Reddam after the colt sustained an injury to his left front foreleg.
When Union Rags won the Belmont on Saturday, any doubts of his ability were shattered by a gutsy dive up the rail to nip Paynter on the line. Under his new jockey, John Velazquez, saddled by Michael Matz for the trainer's first Belmont Stakes victory, and winning for Phyllis Wyeth, his owner, the colt dug down gamely and left backers thrilled by the result of the 1½-mile "Test of a Champion." But even those closest to him are left wondering what could have been.
"I do really think that this horse, when he has a clean trip and can show himself, is one of the best 3-year-olds in this crop," Matz remarked. "Whether he could have done something against I'll Have Another, I don't know -- but it sure would have been fun to see."
It was a brutal beat for Paynter's connections. There Smith found himself again on the lead, a brilliant frontrunner beneath him, just feet away from victory, snatched by a neck in the final strides.
"Is there a Triple Crown for seconds?" asked Baffert, who trained Bodemeister to narrowly lose the Derby and Preakness to I'll Have Another. "I need a Triple Crown for seconds. I knew we had the horse to do it and [Union Rags] snuck up on him there."
While Paynter's connections were left unsatisfied for a torturous third time, it was sweet vindication for those who believed in the merit of the winner.
"We always thought this horse had Triple Crown potential," Matz said. "I'm just glad for Phyllis and the horse we got to see the real Union Rags."
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This was a colt who was sold at auction as a yearling, then bought back by Wyeth, who regretted letting him go and knew he was something special. Already a winner at Belmont of the Champagne Stakes here last October, he went off as the 5-2 second choice behind Dullahan and took over when the Dale Romans trainee dropped back to ninth and moved sluggishly to eventually finish seventh in the 11-horse field.
"Turning for home he just got to spinning his wheels," Romans said. "He said the track was pretty deep and cuppy, but I'm not going to make excuses for him."
Velazquez, en route to his second Belmont victory (the first came with Rags to Riches in 2007), gave Union Rags the perfect stalking trip along the rail.
"I waited for a hole to open up and I got lucky," he remarked. "The horse did it all. He put in a good fight."
Final time for the distance was 2:30.42. Longshot runner Atigun completed the unlikely tri. The winner will return to his trainer's base at Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton, Md., late Saturday night or early Sunday morning.
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For the fans who originally hoped to witness Triple Crown history on Saturday, a more poignant moment came before the race was even run. Craning from the recesses of Belmont Park and the trackside apron and the grassy backyard areas under expansive, shady trees, they leaned to see I'll Have Another paraded through the paddock and into the winner's circle.
"He's had an incredible run," said trainer Doug O'Neill, who announced the decision to scratch and retire the colt on Friday after a mild tendon issue was detected in his left front leg. "Could we have run him [in the Belmont]? Yes. But would that have been the right move? No. I was proud of the whole team. It was unanimous in not running him. He's a once-in-a-lifetime horse. We're just focused on all the great part of this journey he took us through."
The crowd of 85,811 at Belmont was the sixth-largest in history. Same as they have been for generations -- old and young mixed together in a throng, sheer silk dresses and fine high heels mingled with cargo shorts and flip-flops, rich and poor and middle-class with designer suits and fedoras contrasting against polo shirts and ball caps -- they wagered the second-largest Belmont Stakes Day on-track handle ever, $13,777,920 through the windows. Many still sported vestiges of purple in honor of I'll Have Another, and before they cheered for Union Rags, they cheered as jockey Mario Guitierrez received a leg-up on the back of the retired chestnut runner.
About an hour before the Belmont winner would pose for his picture in the winner's circle, I'll Have Another stood there quietly while photographers snapped away. Then the rider jumped down and they removed the saddle, and the bittersweet longing for what could have been mingled with relief that the colt had not run with the injury undetected. As he was led away to cheers and applause, we lived the final moments of our hopes and dreams fading for yet another year.
Union Rags won the Belmont on Saturday. It was a race for the history books -- just not one that mattered as much as it could have.
Claire Novak is an Eclipse Award-winning journalist whose coverage of the thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets. You can reach her via her website.